Beyond the myths of being an expat woman in the Middle East

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Published 2019-06-19 11:15

According to an HSBC report earlier this year, two of the ten best expat destinations for international workers are in the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain give expats-to-be financial incentives to apply for jobs in the region and offer contract stability and fair workplace culture. On the other hand, the Middle Eastern lifestyle and culture are beyond many expats’ ken, especially women’s from Western parts of the world. But what it’s like to be a woman expatriate in the Middle East? Expat.com taps into the Middle Eastern idiosyncrasies to help women expats-to-be understand the nuances of living and working in the area.

Maria Iotova

Maria Iotova is a freelance journalist, editor, and communications strategist for the travel, non-profit, and news sectors. Among others, she has written for the Huffington Post, the Culture Trip, and the Financial Times. After intensively exploring her home country of Greece and the UK as a journalism graduate, her obsession with unearthing untold stories took her to Ghana where she worked for The Daily Graphic. Ever since, with her husband and dog, she has lived in South Korea, Mauritius, and currently in Rwanda doing what she loves the most: getting out of her comfort zone.

Gender equality in the Middle East

The Middle East isn’t a homogenous region, and what may be true for one country, it isn’t for another. Saudi Arabia is the world’s most gender-segregated nation, and according to The Global Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum, women’s professional, social, and personal life is regulated by the law of male guardianship. However, in recent years, Saudi women have been empowered in an unseen way throughout the Kingdom’s history, and a lot of work is being done towards bridging the inequality gap between male and female citizens.

The same Global Gender Gap report ranks the UAE as the Middle East’s most equal country when it comes to gender. Indeed, about 50% of graduates in STEM are women, and the UAE is the first country in the region to require female board members in every company and government agency. Overall, the Gender Balance Council is focusing on increasing women’s participation in leadership positions and the public sector, where women hold more than half of the jobs.
Monique is a seasoned expat from South Africa. Among other countries, she has lived in Qatar as a flight attendant for five years and Oman and Egypt as a stay-at-home mom for three and two years, respectively. When we asked her about the main restrictions as a woman expat in the Middle East, she said: “Υou have to dress conservatively; you should always have your shoulders and knees covered, except if you are at hotel pools or beaches. You are not allowed to hold hands with a partner in public unless you are married.”

Local customs and traditions

The Middle East is a collectivist culture, meaning that the community and family are at the centre of everyday life. As opposed to many Western, individualistic societies, in the Middle East independence and personal aspirations aren’t of as much value as group goals.

Monique commented: “Middle Eastern societies are family orientated. If you open up to them and show them respect, you will become part of their family, and they will go out of their way to help you. This also reflects on their food traditions — they cook dishes that everyone shares.”

The nomadic Bedouins’ culture heavily influences the Middle East. In countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Oman, many people still own camels and eat their meat, following the traditions of thousands of years. The Islamic Law governs the Middle East, and in spite of being a welcoming expat region, newcomers must be mindful of the local beliefs and practices. It is important for expats to be aware that the law isn’t lenient on outsiders.

However, as a woman expat, don’t think that you will have to wear a headscarf or Abaya attire. Josiane, a Lebanese expat in Dubai, said: “Before I moved to Dubai, I used to be asked if I would need to be fully covered. While, for sure, you need to be accommodating and respectful towards a country's tradition and culture, you can wear what you want.”

Expat lifestyle

As in every location in the world, expats have to make lifestyle changes up to a certain extent. A successful transition from one’s home country or previous expat destination to the new location helps expats thrive in their work environment, support their families, and find a balance between social, personal, and work life.  

Probably the first and most significant change that expat women in the Middle East make starts within their wardrobe. Once expat women get their head around the modest dress code, which stops them from wearing shorts and crop tops, and requires to keep the shoulders and knees covered, the lifestyle is fun, and it brims with events and festivals.     

Josianne reflected on her everyday life in Dubai: “Considering the fast-paced environment, as well as the demanding nature of the work, you might not have enough time to catch up with many of your friends regularly. But, if you are a social butterfly, you will always find something new and trendy to do in the city.” Party makers should keep in mind that even though in some Middle Eastern countries it isn’t illegal to drink alcohol, one will need a permit to buy liquor from a designated store.  

Expats make up about half of the Middle East’s total population, meaning that it’s easy to find people from diverse backgrounds or people who have similar interests with you to mingle with. Expat women should bear in mind that the Middle East — partly due to its strict laws — is a safe expat destination.

Useful tips before moving to the Middle East

When we asked our women expat interviewees what is their advice to women expats-to-be, here’s what they suggested.

Monique:  “Do some research about the customs and rules of the country where you are moving to. They may seem very strict from the outside, but once you are there, you will see that they can be open and welcoming. Even though these countries are very safe, you should be aware of your surroundings, and be prepared for occasional stares.”

Debbie is an English woman who has lived for seven years in Oman and five years in Dubai. She advised: “Any woman, single, married or part of a family, could make the move to Oman, as long as she’s open and receptive. The Omani are warm and welcoming, proud of their country, and open to sharing it with expats. Make friends, join groups, go to the gym or do yoga, and make an effort to entertain at home. ”


Note to our readers: Each country within the Middle East is different, and every expat has a unique personality, different expectations, and expatriates under different conditions. The aim of this article isn’t to generalise or disregard one’s personal experience, but to give an insight into women’s expat life in the Middle East.